Shortly after the conclusion of the Rose Bowl, where USC made a remarkable and unexpected comeback against a Penn State team that has owned the fourth quarter all season, I made a comment to the others on the staff- "This is the kind of game where you wake up the next morning, remember what happened and your heart breaks all over again."
While I admit to being fanatical about Penn State Football, I've always had the tendency to take losses in stride and not let them sour my mood. I've learned throughout my life that there are so many terrible things that can happen that make the games we love to follow seem completely inconsequential. If one of the worse things that can happen to you is seeing your favorite team lose a heartbreaking game, then you have had an incredibly fortunate life.
But my prediction turned out to be right- I woke up after a few hours around 3:30 a.m. By the time I looked over to the alarm clock I recalled the final moments of the Rose Bowl, and felt like someone had punched me in the gut. When I woke up for good at 6 a.m., that heartbroken feeling immediately returned.
I'll admit I spent most of the week with a sense of sadness about an instant classic that somehow slipped away. This wasn't supposed to happen to this team. They are the ones who make all the defining plays in the second half, and especially the fourth quarter, to clinch a victory. This time we finally saw what it felt like to be on the other end of things. I kept waiting for someone to make that game-winning play- an interception to seal the deal, a breakaway touchdown run by Barkley, a long heave down over the top by McSorley. The defensive line, which had imposed its will in the fourth quarter each week thanks to a deep rotation, just could not find its way into the backfield to force a bad play. Even a first down to help vanquish the clock turned out to be elusive.
It all just hurt so much to think about what could have been. My heart especially ached for the seniors who had to go out this way.
Then something strange happened. Despite my best efforts to focus on the positives (and there are many) about the program moving forward, I was comforted by the voices of an unlikely source- the national media. Yes, the group who have tried, rather unsuccessfully, to bury the program during the past five years, the same group who kept repeating that this Penn State team was a fluke that won the Big Ten on a "technicality" (I'll never understand how winning the division based on your record and the teams you beat is considered a technicality to some, but that's for another day) have finally come around to something that we all have known for some time- this Penn State team is damn good. While I know we've become accustomed to the constant flow of hot air from these types, it was a nice sense of vindication to know that others finally took a critical look at this team and the state of the program and realized that not only is this team back, but they are here to stay.
But in the end, their opinions don't matter. We have plenty of reason to look back at this season and forever remember this team with great fondness. Despite being one of the youngest teams in school history and constantly beset with injuries at key positions, this team showed incredible resolve each week on their way to a Big Ten Championship. They left us with so many memories that will not soon be forgotten, whether it was a play you had to watch over and over to make sure it really happened, or that victorious feeling that put a little extra swagger in your step and pride in your heart. They showed us why you should never quit when the odds are stacked against you. They reminded us why we are all proud to be part of this community- a community where we can all lean on one other to produce results that seem impossible to most.
I’m sure in 20 years from now I’ll look up at the ‘2016’ on the side of Beaver Stadium, and smile as many fond memories come rushing back. But it's not just memories that should leave us with a smile, but also a huge sense of optimism moving forward. This team returns plenty of talent and exceptional leaders who will be ready to pour every ounce of effort on the field once again in the fall. The cupboard is well stocked with standout players who learned on the fly in 2016, and plenty of newcomers who will make a name for themselves by the time October rolls around. After what we learned about this players and coaches this fall, you just know they're set to work their tails off all offseason in 2017 and beyond.
The final moments of the Rose Bowl may have been a bitter pill to swallow, but there's no way of forgetting the incredible season we just witnessed, and an extremely bright future we're set to enjoy together.